In an era where America’s once beloved pastime has been watered down to a mere game of number crunching and statistical research, I want to be brave, go out on a limb and argue that the overuse of analytics is in fact ruining the game of baseball.
To support my argument, I’m going to take us back to a case study as fine as any: game four of the 2018 World Series.
It was the top of the seventh when Los Angeles Dodgers’ manager Dave “Doc” Roberts made perhaps the most questionable move of his managerial career, a move so egregious that even the President of the United States had to weigh in on it. Roberts trekked to the mound and pulled pitcher Rich Hill — who had tossed a dominant six innings and had allowed only one earned run — from the ballgame. Showing seemingly no signs of fatigue, Hill followed Doc’s orders and walked back to the dugout as cheers showered over him and rang throughout Chavez Ravine.
What ensued next will live in infamy for years to come. Reliever Scott Alexander came into the game and walked the first batter he faced. Unimpressed, Roberts once again signaled to the bullpen and brought in right-hander Ryan Madson, a pitcher who had been shaky all through the postseason.
With two outs and two on, Madson dealt Mitch Moreland an offspeed pitch over the plate, and Moreland launched the ball into the right field bleachers to bring the Red Sox within one run of the Dodgers’ lead. From there on, all hell broke loose — the Sox went on to win the game, and the Dodgers fell behind in the series 3-1 instead of tying it up at 2-2.
All this considered, here’s the million dollar question: Why did Doc do it? Why did he pull an electric Rich Hill at just 91 pitches, only to bring in two risky relievers?
The answer: he relied too heavily on analytics.
Instead of trusting his gut and sticking with the hot hand, Roberts heeded the advice on his clipboard and attempted to employ a statistically favorable matchup. Roberts’ overreliance on empirical data horribly backfired and will be remembered as one of the greatest managerial errors in World Series history.
Now, let’s juxtapose Roberts’ actions to those taken by Red Sox skipper Alex Cora the next night.
In game five, Cora gave the middle finger to analytics and started David Price on short rest despite a plethora of statistical evidence advising him against doing so. Price allowed just one earned run through seven innings, and Boston celebrated its World Series victory in front of all 54,000 fans at Dodger Stadium.
The 2018 MLB season ended by means of a sabermetrical nightmare, and unfortunately the nightmare has continued into the offseason.
“We are less then a month from the start of spring and once again some of our games biggest starts remain unsigned [sic],” Giants’ third baseman Evan Longoria wrote on Instagram. “It’s seems every day now someone is making up a new analytical tool to devalue players, especially free agents [sic].”
This offseason’s free agency pool consists of former MVP Bryce Harper, Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel and All-Star Manny Machado, all of whom are unsigned because teams are employing the failed sabermetrical approach made famous by Billy Beane and the Oakland A’s. Although several teams can afford to pay these stars their asking prices, most are instead pursuing less impactful but more affordable players they have deemed adequate.
Last season, the Red Sox bit the bullet, pursued top free agents and paid the league’s luxury tax. Lo and behold, the decision worked out beautifully in their favor and the club captured its third championship in fourteen years. Meanwhile, stingy teams like the Reds, Marlins and Tigers sat on the couch in October and watched the World Series from home.
Toward the end of the 2011 blockbuster “Moneyball,” the film’s narrator perfectly summarizes the Athletics’ failure with the following passage:
“You can’t approach baseball from a statistical Beane counter point of view, it’s won on the field with fundamental play… And you don’t do that with a bunch of statistical gimmicks. Nobody reinvents this game.”
Baseball is a sport, not a mathematical equation. Every pitch that is thrown is subject to a wide array of potential outcomes, and no mathematical formula will ever be able to perfectly predict that outcome.
Baseball is a game. Treat it as such.
Joey Patton covers men’s swimming and diving. Contact him at [email protected].